Do vouchers help students succeed?

Vouchers don’t do much for students, argues Stephanie Simon on Politico. Voucher programs now cost $1 billion nationwide.

In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools. In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.

In New Orleans, voucher students who struggle academically haven’t advanced to grade-level work any faster over the past two years than students in the public schools, many of which are rated D or F, state data show.

Vouchers improve student outcomes, according to high-quality research studies, responds Adam Emerson in Education Gadfly.

Consider, for instance, the work of Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, who has examined the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship and found that it led to improved reading achievement among participants while also increasing a student’s chance of graduating high school by 21 percentage points. Consider, too, that random-assignment studies of privately funded voucher programs in New YorkDayton and Charlotte found higher achievement levels on standardized tests or higher college-going rates, or both, particularly for black students. Other empirical studies led to findings that range from the positive competitive effects vouchers have on public schools to the heightened level of achievement that comes from greater accountability (this last comes from Milwaukee, where Simon noted that snapshot test scores of voucher students look poorly but where a longitudinal analysis of the voucher program reports more positive results).

But a single literature review from Greg Forster at the Friedman Foundation is perhaps most revealing: eleven of twelve random-assignment studies have showed improved academic outcomes of students who participated in voucher programs. The one study that didn’t found no visible impact on students one way or the other.

Research supports voucher benefits, agrees Rick Hess. He quotes himself, and eight others, in an Education Week commentary last year:

Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. None of these studies has found a negative impact. . . . Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive.

That $1 billion for vouchers “amounts to less than one-fifth of one percent of K–12 spending,” Hess points out.  ”We spend north of $600 billion a year on K–12 schooling in the U.S., including tens of billions on employee health care and retirement benefits.”

Vedder: College aid should reward achievement

Federal college aid should reward achievement, argues economist Richard Vedder. The expansion of federal aid has “contributed to high dropout rates, mediocre levels of student work effort and academic performance,” underemployment for college graduates and credential inflation, Vedder believes.

‘A’ is for achievement, not acquiescence

Grades will reflect achievement, not behavior, in Milwaukee’s elementary and middle schools, reports the Journal-Sentinel.

According to MPS, the updated report card identifies the skills students need to master in each grade level, and replaces overall letter grades with an AD for advanced, PR for proficient, BA for basic and MI for minimal. Proficient is the level expected for a student’s grade level.

The report card offers separate feedback about a student’s work habits, behavior and effort — such as following rules or arriving to class prepared — on a scale of 1 to 4.

High schools will use the traditional A-F system to generate grade-point averages necessary for college applications.

This could be an effort to help boys, write Ann Althouse. “I suspect that the credit-giving business had been perverted into an enterprise of teaching compliance and tolerance for boredom and constraint.”

Self-control gone wild?

Has teaching self-control gone wild? Daniel Willingham responds to Elizabeth Weil’s New Republic cover story, American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids: In Defense of the Wild Child.

Weil uses self-regulation, grit and social-emotional skills interchangeably, but “they are not the same thing,” writes Willingham.

Self-regulation (most simply put) is the ability to hold back an impulse when you think that that the impulse will not serve other interests. (The marshmallow study would fit here.) Grit refers to dedication to a long-term goal, one that might take years to achieve, like winning a spelling bee or learning to play the piano proficiently. Hence, you can have lots of self-regulation but not be very gritty. Social emotional skills might have self-regulation as a component, but it refers to a broader complex of skills in interacting with others.

. . . Weil is right that some research indicates a link between socioemotional skills and desirable outcomes, some doesn’t. But there is quite a lot of research showing associations between self-control and positive outcomes for kids including academic outcomes, getting along with peers, parents, and teachers, and the avoidance of bad teen outcomes (early unwanted pregnancy, problems with drugs and alcohol, et al.). I reviewed those studies here. There is another literature showing associations of grit with positive outcomes (e.g.,Duckworth et al, 2007).

It’s possible that better test scores (and fewer drug and alcohol problems) come at a cost, Willingham concedes. Weil suggests a trade-off between self-regulation and the wild child’s creativity and personality.

But self-regulation doesn’t have to crush exuberance, Willingham argues. It tells a child when she’s being adorably exuberant and when she’s being a pain.

If we’re overdoing self-regulation, children will “feel burdened, anxious, worried about their behavior,” he writes. “When I visit classrooms or wander the aisles of Target, I do not feel that American kids are over-burdened by self-regulation,” he writes.

Indeed.

Algebra II isn’t what it used to be

Passing Algebra II no longer shows mastery of algebra or preparation for college math, concludes a new Brown Center report, The Algebra Imperative.

“Pushing students to take more advanced coursework has been a mainstay of American school reform for several decades,” writes researcher Tom Loveless.

In 1986, less than half of white 17 year-olds and less than a third of blacks and Hispanics had completed Algebra II. That’s up to 79 percent for whites and 69 percent of black and Hispanic students.

But “getting more students to take higher level math courses may be a hollow victory,” Loveless writes.  ”As enrollments boomed, test scores went down.”  

Figure 1. NAEP Math, 17 Year-Olds who have Completed Second Year Algebra (1986-2012)

“More and more unprepared students are being pushed into advanced math in middle school,” Loveless writes. In some cases, eighth graders with second- and third-grade math skills are placed in algebra classes.

A study out of California found that marginal math students who spent one more year before tackling Algebra I were 69% more likely to pass the algebra end of course exam in 9th grade than ninth grade peers who were taking the course for the second time after failing the algebra test in 8th grade.

. . . A study of Charlotte-Mecklenburg students by Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor found that low achievers who took 8th grade algebra experienced negative long term effects, including lower pass rates in Geometry and Algebra II.

It’s not just algebra either. “There is very little truth in labeling for high school Algebra I and Geometry courses,” Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told Education Week.

ADHD drugs don’t raise kids’ grades

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder medications don’t improve academic achievement, according to new studies, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Stimulants used to treat ADHD like Ritalin and Adderall are sometimes called “cognitive enhancers” because they have been shown in a number of studies to improve attention, concentration and even certain types of memory in the short-term.

. . . However, a growing body of research finds that in the long run, achievement scores, grade-point averages or the likelihood of repeating a grade generally aren’t any different in kids with ADHD who take medication compared with those who don’t.

Boys who took ADHD drugs performed worse in school than those with similar symptoms who didn’t, according to the study, which tracked students in Quebec. Girls on ADHD drugs reported more emotional problems.

Rapper: You’ve earned a worthless diploma

Black male graduates of Chicago high school are “four, five steps behind people in other countries,” rapper Lupe Fiasco told young men at a Mass Black Male Graduation and Transition to Manhood ceremony.

The local rapper began by saying, “Congratulations, you have graduated from one of the most terrible, substandard school systems in the entire world. You have just spent the last . . . 12 years receiving one of the worst educations on earth.”

. . .  “Transition to manhood is the most important thing that’s going on right now. The caps and the gowns and your tassels and your honorary blah blah blahs don’t mean nothing. . . . They just represent to someone else that you’ve achieved something. But then when you look back at it, what have you achieved?”

The rapper, a product of Chicago-area schools, told the young men to earn and maintain their manhood, “one of the last things that we can control.”

Philip Jackson, the event’s organizer, called the speech a needed “dose of reality.”

NAPCS: Charters boost achievement

Charter school students outperform similar students in district-run public schools, according to a National Alliance for Public Charter Schools analysis of research in the last three years.

Three national studies and ten studies from major regions across the country since 2010 found positive academic performance results for students in public charter schools compared to their traditional public school peers, suggesting a strong upward trend . . .

Since 2010, only one study, conducted in Utah, has found neutral or negative results for charter schools, NAPCS reports.

Report: Close bad charters, expand good ones

Urban charter schools outperform traditional public schools in five cities, concludes Searching for Excellence, a Fordham report conducted by Public Impact. However, urban charter students trail students in their home states, who are much less likely to be living in poverty.

The study looked at charter performance in Albany, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, and Indianapolis. In each city, charter quality varied greatly from school to school.

 . . . there are deeply troubled charters—some whose academic results can’t even match up with their long-suffering district peers. but on the other hand, there are fantastic charters—some whose academic performance competes with the best schools in their states.

Fordham calls for closing the worst-performing 10 percent of charters and expanding the top 10 percent.

In Cleveland, the policy of closure and aggressive replication of high-performing schools would, Public Impact estimates, result in charter schools vastly outperforming the district schools in five years. Moreover, this policy would put Cleveland’s charters on track to perform on par with the state average by year five.

Charter schools educate 30+ percent of public school students in seven cities — New Orleans, Detroit, Washington, DC,  Kansas City, Flint, Gary; and St. Louis — and 20+ percent in 18 cities.

Massachusetts may lift charter cap

Massachusetts may eliminate a cap on charter schools in 29 low-performing school districts, including Boston, reports the Wall Street Journal.  Two Democratic legislators introduced the bill.

(State Sen. Barry) Finegold, the bill’s sponsor and the son of public-school teachers, said his motivation sprung from conversations with parents in Lawrence, part of his district northwest of Boston, where the struggling school district was taken over by the state in 2011. The state has since brought in charter operators to run two low-performing schools, and parents told him, “we’d be out of here” had that not happened, Mr. Finegold said. “One thing I don’t think people realize—charter schools are keeping a lot of the middle class in cities,” he said.

More than 31,000 Massachusetts students attend charter schools, an increase of 20 percent in the past four years.

Massachusetts ranks its schools from Level One, the highest, to Level Five based on academic achievement, graduation and dropout rates. This year, 59% of charter schools in the state were Level One, compared with 31% of non-charter schools.

A recent CREDO study found Massachusetts charters produce learning gains statewide — very large learning gains for Boston students.